Monday, April 28, 2014

Final Reflections On An Amazing Trip

Our final day and reflections.

Today we had a free day to explore Budapest on our own. We navigated subways and buses to see the ancient Roman city and the Great Central Market. Both had history and charm. The market deserves its reputation for great pickles. We finished our day with dinner and a cruise on the Danube.

I never wanted to visit any of these places except for Prague. But I have certainly changed my mind after this trip. Each of these cities has a unique history and charm that one should not miss. For centuries our people lived, and continue to live in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. Some of my ancestors and yours came to these lands for same reasons they left them generations later - to seek a better life for themselves and for us. Those who choose to stay in these countries do so for many reasons yet, with one common purpose, to keep Judaism and Jewish culture alive and thriving. Of all the countries I have doubts about the future of Jews in Hungary. But we know more than we did 70 years ago and they and we remain ever vigilant.

In the course of our travels we met many people. Yes, a few were odd, or rude or unfriendly. But the vast majority treated us in the tradition of Abraham who welcomed strangers into his home, washed their feet and fed them.

Everyone we asked felt the Russians and Putin breathing down their necks and had no desire to fall back under Russian influence. The countries we visited all belong to the European Union which offers them more protection than afforded the Ukraine. Poland, as a member of NATO falls under our protective umbrella. We pray for peace in their lands and yet stay ever watchful.

Thank you to all our new friends. Thank you to our incredible travel agent. Thank you to the friends with whom we travelled. Thank you for the opportunity to take this journey and return in peace.

And thanks to all of you who have followed this blog.

Onward to Budapest!

Waking up this morning I knew it was time to leave Poland. Even I couldn't eat another pirogi! Our driver George picked us up at 7:45 (I thought this was at least partly a vacation) and we began the drive south to Budapest. Evidently I fell asleep because when I opened my eyes we were in Slovakia. Like on the drive from Prague to Warsaw there were no border crossings or passport checks. If you don't see a road sign the only way you know you're in a different country is when you see a different language or, in the case of these countries which are not part of the Euro Zone, totally different prices on gas station signs. Driving between New Mexico and Colorado the border between states is more noticeable than between countries here.

What amazes me about this is the historic enmity between these countries. Over the past millennium plus they have occupied each other's territory, fought destructive wars that killed millions and bred deep seeded mistrust.
Contrast this with the border crossings from the United States into Canada and the building of walls along the border with Mexico, nations with whom we have been at peace for nearly two centuries and when there was conflict it was America that began it.

After arriving in Budapest, we found a nearby pub for dinner and settled in for the night.

Our first day of touring in Budapest was with a guide, Thomas. We began the day with a tour of all the Hungarian sites and spent the afternoon touring the Jewish sites.

In his running commentary, the guide kept telling us that people think he is Jewish on his father's side but because he grew up in the communist era he really has no idea. He referenced that except for some periods when anti-Semitism "went underground" Hungary has always been an iffy haven for Jews. Even today there is a party running for parliament that is racist and anti-Semitic being run by the grandson of the head of the Nazi party of Hungary during WW II (since we were in Budapest they won 20% of the vote.) Even he would slip and make the occasional comment about Jews and money.

Our tour of the Jewish sites included the Dohany Synagogue located of course on Dohany (tobacco) street (See below for the pictures. They claim it is the largest synagogue in Europe and I have no reason to dispute that claim. Moorish in design it is a truly magnificent building. Of course it was fully reconstructed after the Holocaust as Eichmann used it for his office and the Nazi's used the ground floor as a stable.

On the grounds of the synagogue are 24 mass graves of people who died when the Nazis forced the Jewish population into the Ghetto. In an amazing courtyard is a beautiful tree of life Holocaust memorial originally commissioned by Tony Curtis in memory of his Hungarian Jewish family that died in the Holocaust. People can "purchase" leaves to attach to the tree with the names of their family members who were killed during WW II.

In addition to the memorial there was a special plaque in memory of the great Jewish poet, Chana Szenes (Hannah Senesh.) Most America Jews know her from her poem Eli Eli which was set to music by David Zahavy. Szenes was one of a number of Israeli Jews who parachuted into Hungary to help save the Jews there. She was captured, tortured and killed by the Nazis.

But the most moving part of the memorial area for me was the section dedicated to the righteous people who helped Jews survive the Nazi's Final Solution. Included in the group are two of my personal heroes. Pope John XXIII who wrote thousands of Baptismal certificates for Jews and pressured Pope Pius to intercede with the Nazis on behalf of the Jews as well as pushing his fellow bishops to follow his example. When he became Pope John XXIII he called the 2nd Vatican Council together whose task in part was to push the Catholic Church to reach out to Jews and other faiths. While he was always a "saint" to the Jew people, the Catholic Church just formally canonized him as a Saint of the Church.

In the center of the memorial area is a marker dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg for his part in issuing visas to Hungarian Jews. On his memorial are also written the names of other diplomats who followed his example include some who issued more visas than Wallenberg. We never hear of these diplomats. Unlike Wallenberg who disappeared into the Soviet Union after the war, they returned to their lives in their home country. Their only acclaim coming from Yad Va'shem. We need to continue their memories in the coming decades and centuries and follow their courageous inspiration to save all the oppressed in our world.

A part of the expansion of the Dohany synagogue sits on the location of the house where Theodore Herzl was born. What an incredible contrast with the destruction that would come with the Shoah (Holocaust). Across the street, where the back yard of the house would have been is a park where people from all over the city can gather to relax and play. It is an appropriate tribute to the man who had the vision to transform deserts and swamps into a thriving country.

Pictures of the Dohany Synagogue

Friday, April 25, 2014

Auschwitz Birkenau

Today we went to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the largest concentration/death camps. They are symbols of the horrors humanity is capable of perpetrating. There is nothing I can say that can capture the reality of the Shoah (Holocaust). Words are simply inadequate. However there were two things that struck a powerful chord in me.

First, while we were walking through Auschwitz there was a tangible sounds of a baby crying. On the one hand it echoed the cries of children being ripped away from their parents' arms 70 years ago. On the other, when I finally saw the child it was bundled up in warm clothing being held by its father who would take it from the camp at the end of the day. The child became for me an important symbol of life, love, hope and humanity in the midst of this place of horror, death and inhumanity.

Second was the remnant of a gas chamber/crematorium. Sitting there as an abandoned pile of rubble I felt this symbol of death and horror had become a tribute to the victory of life. Its fallen bricks a tribute to the strength of the Jewish imperative to choose life. It lies in ruins and we continue on living.

One last thought about our time in Poland. Here the specter of the Russian (I almost typed Soviet) takeover of Crimea and the massing of troops on the border of the Ukraine reminds everyone we spoke with of the Anschluss when Germany invaded the Sudentenland on the pretext of protecting Germans living in Czechoslovakia. The fear of some of the Poles we talked to brought home the reality of a world with the real potential to go to war.

Friday, April 18, 2014

What Do Rabbi Moses Isserles, Pope John Paul II and a Spiritual Vortex Have In Common?

I'm told most people like Krakow better than Warsaw but I liked Warsaw more. While nice and filled with more old world charm the sights in Krakow lacked the power I felt in Warsaw. In Krakow I also noticed a chauvinism I hadn't in Warsaw. The Poles were the best at this... This is the most beautiful in all of Europe...

For me the main highlight was the synagogue and grave of the RaMA (or as the Poles say ReMU) Rabbi Moshe Isserles who authored the Mapa (table cloth) a commentary on the ultimate code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Arukh (set table). The Shulchan Arukh was written by Rabbi Joseph Caro in Sefat (Safed) as a guide to all Jewish law and practice. Written in easily understood Hebrew for those who could not study the Talmud itself, the Shulchan becomes the definitive list of Jewish law. However, since it was written in Safed and Caro came from the Sefardic world, the Shulchan Arukh delineates Jewish law as practiced by the remnants of the Sefardic (Spanish) Jewish community. In the Mapa, Isserles
RaMa's grave
notes the differences in practice as found in the Ashkananic (European) Jewish communities. Together, the Shulchan Arukh and the Mapa become the central repository of Jewish law. I felt Isserles' presence in these sacred spaces.

In addition to its long history and beautiful old buildings most Americans only know about Krakow because it was the site of Oscar Schindler's factory. The factory still stands today and is a powerful museum dedicated to the power of a human being to do good in the face of ultimate evil. I think I felt the strength it must have taken this ethically challenged man to change his inner being and find his compassion and courage.

In the old Krakow Ghetto

Krakow's favorite son is Pope John Paul II. He was born and raised near the city. Attended a secret seminary there when the Nazi's banned the training of Catholic Priests. He served there as a priest and ultimately as Bishop and Cardinal of the city. Growing up here his closest childhood friend was a Jew and he never forgot that connection until his death. There are statues, plaques and pictures of him everywhere.

Of all the non-Jewish sites we saw in Krakow the most "unusual" was in the center of Wawel Castle. It is said that there is a spiritual vortex there and if you lean back against the wall in the right spot you can feel the vibrations. I tried it and could feel the vibration! Our guide then told us that under that spot is a confluence of 2 rivers which is what cause the vibration. 

I wonder - is the vibration just from the rivers or do the rivers that cause a vibration that becomes a vortex?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

From Warsaw to Krakow

This morning Ziggy picked us up for the drive to Krakow and told us we would be driving in the direction of their town so we would swing by and pick up Joanna on our way. We did much more than that. We got a full tour of their town including the incredible villas that had been the summer homes of the rich before WWII. Mostly abandoned with only a few restored it was a powerful reminder of how prosperous and creative the Polish republic had been before the war and the advent of communism. As they showed us this sedate, peaceful town they call home the love in their voices moved each of us.

We then proceeded to the home of the Gur Chasidim and the closed synagogue there, yet another reminder of a culture lost and what survived was transplanted to Israel.

We continued south through a changing landscape of flat farmland to hills and woods. The terrain looked like a combination of the American midwest and central Israel.

Our first dinner in Krakow was in an incredible restaurant named Corse. Serving Corsican style food, fish, seafood... the food was great and the service impeccable. I highly recommend it.


Our day began with a hotel breakfast that rivaled any Israeli breakfast I've ever had.

Joanna and Ziggy picked us up at the hotel and we drove to our first stop, the Janusz Korczak Memorial. Korsak is one of my few personal heroes. His dedication to his students, his progressive ideas about a child's capability and his resolve that led him to never abandon a child which led him to accompany his children to the death camp.

We then visited the last remaining Warsaw synagogue from before the Holocaust and toured the remnants and history of the Warsaw Ghetto. There are so few buildings and sections of the Ghetto wall remaining we were able

to see them all. We saw photos and memorials to the Ghetto fighters, learned how some of them survived and the visited the memorials to the fighters of the Warsaw uprising that occurred the next year.

On the way to the Jewish cemetery we stopped at a memorial to the Ghetto fighters who survived and escaped the Ghetto thanks to an "Aryan" looking Jew, Simcha Rotem-Ratayzer with the help of some Polish sewer workers. Rotem-Ratayzer got a truck and parked it so it blocked the view of a sewer cover being worked on by the sewer workers. One by one these surviving Jewish warriors climbed out of the sewer and into the truck which then drove off.  While we were there, another sewer crew was standing near by and we wondered if perhaps they were the grandchildren of those righteous Poles who helped save these brave Jews. The memorial has hands climbing the ladder out of the sewer as well as what happened to each of the survivors.


We arrived at the Jewish cemetery 70 acres with over 200,000 graves including some mass graves of those who died in the Ghetto in the years before the uprising. The size and scope of the cemetery overwhelmed our senses. The highlight for me was a visit to the grave of the great Yiddish writers Y. L. Peretz and S. Ansky. I've studied and taught their stories for nearly 40 years. To stand before their impressive memorial in the midst of thousands upon thousands of Jewish graves my soul shivered.

At the memorial to children murdered in the Shoah (Holocaust) we met a group of students from Trinity College Hillel. Ziggy recognized a young woman with them whose family he had guided two years ago. The reunion and the presence of the students were moments of life and hope in this sacred place of history and pain. As we walked back to the cemetery gate, we again saw the Trinity students. This time they were raking leaves, cutting brush and removing debris from a series of graves. As I watched them I wondered how many of them had ever done yard work before or if they did how hard their parents fought with them to do it. Here they cut and raked and cleared enthusiastically: More signs of life, hope and memory.

We left the cemetery and went to a memorial the size of a box car on the sight of the train stop used to transport the Jews from the Ghetto to Treblinka and other death camps. The memorial is stark but moving.

Our next stop - a visit to Mila 18 - the bunker in which the last of the Ghetto fighters were hiding in Jewish Warsaw melded perfectly with the stop before the cemetery.  As the Nazis were about to enter the bunker the fighters emulated the zealots on Masada and killed themselves rather than be killed or captured by the Nazis. I've never liked that message of Masada, kill oneself and negate the possibility, no matter how slim of survival. But I was not there. I've never been in that position and God willing never will. Maybe I would make the same choice, maybe not.

By 1947 the Poles in Warsaw had built a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters. It is a powerful piece. Knowing that it was built from Swedish granite originally commissioned by Hitler for a monument to his glory, the monument carries even more power. On one side you see Jews escorted to death by Nazi soldiers. Men, women and children all walking silently in a shallow bas relief. On the other side, bursting forth in total 3-D the men and women fighters. It took my breath away. Recently the Polish Government has built a Jewish History Museum adjacent to the Memorial. The museum building is finished but the permanent exhibit is unfinished. We decided to eat lunch there to support the museum again finding life in the midst of pain.

Our final Jewish stop was the Jewish archives from the Ghetto. Hidden in milk cans found after the war, the archive contains documents, photos and examples of daily life in the ghetto. We watched a film made from those archives and from Nazi records. As Ziggy noted, hearing about it and seeing the actual people, conditions and destruction of the Ghetto concretized the reality in our minds.

After the Archives we began our tour of historic Warsaw, government buildings and embassies, monuments and memorials ending at the original site of the city. By the end of the WW II the Nazis had razed Warsaw's old town. Even under communist rule with its bulky, utilitarian, bunker style of building, by 1957 old town had been rebuilt exactly as it looked in the 18th Century. The reconstruction used paintings from that time period to ensure the authenticity of the reconstruction. The only building not rebuilt at that time was the great palace, home to Poland's kings. That was not rebuilt until Poland began a liberalization in the 1970's. Today the building houses a museum.

We are only supposed to have our guides until 5 PM. But, like Ljuba in Prague, Ziggy and Joanna stayed with us well past that hour. As they left for the evening Joanna gave us a present of chocolate so we would have a sweet Shabbat.

The hotel had a Polish buffet for dinner so after a long day of walking and sightseeing we decided to have Shabbat dinner at the hotel. It was a true feast and a fitting way to conclude our day with a taste of Poland and Shabbat in the same moment.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

From Prague to Warsaw

The drive to Warsaw took 11 hours. Our guides Ziggy and Joanna (email: picked us up at the hotel and off we went. We drove through the countryside with a minimum of commentary until we crossed the border into Poland. We stopped just across the border to change money and grab a drink.
Ziggy and Joanna

Suddenly it hit us - we were in Poland!

Over the next 3 days we learned a lot about Ziggy and Joanna. They are both from Warsaw and its suburbs. Even though they grew up less than 20 miles from each other they met in California when Joanna hired Ziggy to do some travel work for her while she worked for LG. Most importantly they were incredible guides!

Several hours later (5:30) we stopped for lunch at a truck stop. Personally I love to eat where the local population does and this was certainly a local place and it did not disappoint.

Finally we arrived at our hotel the Polonia Palace. It could easily compete with any American luxury hotel.